Seal Team Assemble - Shore Excursions aboard the Hebridean Sky!
With the IAATO regulations only allowing cruise ships operating in Antarctica, I was curious to find out how ships that are over 100 passengers handle the flow of shore landings and daily excursions to ensure everyone is having a phenomenal trip while still complying.
After we had made it across the circle on Day 4, the real adventure began. We had been booking it South as fast as possible to accomplish this for the last four days and now that we had done so, we could finally turn around and meander our way up the peninsula, stopping and exploring along the way. The expedition team called us all together to talk a bit about how this would work to keep things efficient on board and off. They split the passengers (106 of us) into four "teams". These teams would be how they would call us over the intercom to let us know what time we needed to meet in the lounge geared up and ready to board the zodiacs. The teams were all animal themed and I was assigned to the Seal team.
Every day after breakfast, we would hear an announcement telling us what we would be seeing/doing that morning. This would be followed by timing. Albatross meet at 9, Penguin meets at 9:15 and Seal team assemble at 9:30. This let everyone know if you had time to relax a bit before layering up in your 12 layers of long johns or if you had to hustle from breakfast to your cabin to suit up right away.
Excursions aboard an Antarctic cruise are expeditions by nature.The Hebridean Sky aimed to provide us with at least one shore landing and one zodiac cruise per day (if two shore landings were not possible) with a huge lunch in between. Our first visit ashore was to a British historic hut called the Whorley House, a cold war era holdover that was built to solidify British clans to this part of the Antarctic continent. We got to tour through the small hut, while the ship historian detailed the use of the hut and the history behind the cans, labels and artifacts that still remain inside. The hut is located adjacent to the Ukrainian research base, Vernadsky Station, or the old British Faraday Station, originally purchased from the British for one GB pound in 1996. It was here that the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica was discovered which resulted in the environmental Montreal Accords being added to the Antarctic Treaty. We were fortunate to be welcomed into the station where the resident researchers provided a guided tour of the research base, as well as samples of their homemade vodka. On our visit, we also met the first female scientist who will ever overwinter at Vernadsky Station in the base's history!
Even the zodiac cruise back to the ship at the end of the day was teeming with incredible encounters. We cruised around in the zodiac for about 45 minutes on the return stopping to observe humpback whales passing by, crabeater seals lounging on icebergs and gentoo penguins shooting through the water around us like little beaked torpedos.
Every day abroad the Hebridean Sky was full of these types of encounters and experiences. Along the peninsula, we zoomed ashore to sit and observe adelie and gentoo penguins toddling down their penguin highways to the ocean, feeding their adolescent offspring and the adolescents moulting their downy chick feathers to be replaced with waterproof adult feathers for their upcoming migration. We had the opportunities to observe humpbacks, orca and minke whales from the close proximity of our zodiacs and had the chance to get up close and personal with icebergs the size of buildings.
Despite ever-changing plans and a passenger load of over 100 guests, shore excursions were handled flawlessly from the morning announcement to the end of day hot tea you are greeted with as you step back on the ship. Never once did I wonder if someone else was getting more time than me or seeing something I missed. The Hebridean Sky had these excursions dialed and every day along the peninsula was better than the next.